REVIEW: BirdWeather PUC – A data-rich continuous portable bird detector

California-based Scribe Labs designed the BirdWeather PUC (Portable Universe Codec). A portable nature recorder designed to accompany you when birdwatching. The PUC continuously records during your trip and when you return home it automatically uploads and detects the birds it heard.

birdweather puc held in hand on hiking trail

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Birdwatchers love lists. Most birders I know actively use eBird to track the “life list” of birds they’ve seen. Tools to identify birds by sound like Merlin or a homemade BirdNET-Go station are super common but come at the price of phone battery, active attention, or constant power source.

There was a void to fill for a portable device with powerful BirdNET capabilities that didn’t require a questionable, battery-powered Raspberry Pi setup.

Identifying this need in the market, California-based Scribe Labs designed the BirdWeather PUC (Portable Universe Codec). A portable nature recorder designed to accompany you when birdwatching. The PUC continuously records during your trip and when you return home it automatically uploads and detects the birds it heard.


Overview

PUC integrates with the BirdWeather app to provide a detailed breakdown of all the bird species it detects with a plethora of supplemental environment measurements.

birdweather puc held in hand on hiking trail
The PUC with us on a recent hike at the park

When you are out in the field birding, the PUC operates completely offline and independent of any phone app. It generates a data log file and stores recordings locally to a microSD card. The next time the PUC is connected to Wi-fi its recordings are (optionally) automatically uploaded for species analysis. All of the data and recordings can be easily reviewed with the BirdWeather app, website, or API.


Background

After a recent successful Kickstarter campaign, the BirdWeather PUC arrived to buyers in December 2023. The BirdWeather Team is based in California and actively develops the software and features using feedback from the community.


Hardware

The BirdWeather PUC boasts a solid build and easily fits into a hand or pocket. It can run on three AA batteries or USB-C power from an outlet or power bank. In recording mode you can expect to get 48 hours of offline recording from a set of lithium AA batteries or 26 hours with alkaline.

inside of birdweather puc and mounting clip
AA batteries, Micro SD card, and the tripod-mountable clip

It includes a clip that can be mounted on a tripod or secured to the BirdWeather Backpack.

birdweather backpack with puc clip attached
The BirdWeather Backpack ($40 add-on)

A single button

One illuminating button is the only way to interact with the PUC. Press and hold to power it on or off. Simply turning it on away from home Wi-Fi will start the automatic recording mode.

Power it off when finished birding and turn it back on when you arrive home to automatically upload the PUC’s recordings to BirdWeather for processing.

Many sensors

The PUC records with dual mics and gathers GPS data, temperature, humidity, pressure, lighting conditions, and more.

As a data geek, the possibilities are endless on how this data can be used. A recent trip to Spain and Portugal provided views of many cute birds and chances for the PUC to collect data.


Software


The app

For most users, the easiest way to interact with your PUC recordings is to use the BirdWeather app.

PUC’s upload progress and current station status is displayed in the app.

birdweather app display the puc's upload progress
The BirdWeather app displays the PUC’s upload progress

The app displays your recent species, total detections and enables exploration of other PUC stations.

birdweather app screenshot showing detections from the puc in europe
A list of some birds the detected PUC during a trip to Spain

Select a recent species from your list and it displays a list of recordings along with quality score and probability. This makes it easy to hone in on the best clips.

birdweather puc recording clip playback screenshot
PUC recording playback


The website

world map on birdweather.com showing the active puc stations
World map on birdweather.com showing the active PUC stations

BirdWeather’s website hosts a Data Explorer tool, providing the ability to analyze your data and export it as needed.

The API

Being a tech geek, I’ve experimented with various ways to interact with the BirdWeather API data. Examples include querying the data for use in a visual dashboard, powering a digital bird chirp counter, and even plotting the detections on a map. Below, I’ll explain how I accomplished this with the detections the PUC captured while birding in Spain and Portugal.


How to use the PUC while birding

Hold the button to turn it on when you start birding. That’s it. The PUC is a passive, set-it-and-forget-it, kind of gadget.

While it’s recording, it will not provide any real-time information to you. No app alerts or other visual indicators will occur. Press the PUC’s button any time and you’ll see a green blink which assures you it’s recording. When finished birding just hold the button to turn it off.

I alternated between throwing it in a mesh backpack pocket and clipping it to the cute custom BirdWeather backpack designed for the PUC (not included). You can also drop it off in a remote location for a few days and retrieve it later.

The PUC demonstrates its usefulness after you return home and the recorded clips finish uploading. Once it finishes you’ll see a list of species and can listen to the individual clips.


Example PUC recordings

I birded Avenue A in downtown San Antonio with the PUC passively recording. This urban river hotspot had many kinds of birds singing and screaming from every direction.

Listen to some samples of birds the PUC recorded. These clips are normalized to -3.0dB in post for consistency.

Eastern Phoebe calls

Red-shouldered Hawk calls

A short Northern Cardinal call followed by the song of the Carolina Wren
White-eyed Vireo song

Let’s compare the automatic PUC detections to my manual eBird checklist

After two hours of birding along the river in San Antonio, I saw 28 and heard 24 species. Later, the PUC uploaded its recordings to BirdWeather and showed 281 detections of 19 unique species.

The PUC impressively detected 88% of the birds I personally heard.

SpeciesDetected by PUC
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck✔️
Egyptian Goose✔️
Wood Duck✔️
Red-shouldered Hawk✔️
Belted Kingfisher✔️
Downy Woodpecker✔️
Eastern Phoebe✔️
White-eyed Vireo✔️
Blue Jay✔️
Carolina Chickadee✔️
Black-crested Titmouse✔️
Purple Martinx
Ruby-crowned Kinglet✔️
Golden-crowned Kingletx
Carolina Wren✔️
American Robin✔️
Cedar Waxwing✔️
House Finch ✔️
Lesser Goldfinch✔️
White-throated Sparrowx
Great-tailed Grackle✔️
Orange-crowned Warbler✔️
Yellow-rumped Warbler✔️
Northern Cardinal✔️

Is a PUC the same kind of thing as the Merlin app?

The BirdWeather PUC shares some similarities with the popular Merlin Bird ID app but they ultimately serve different purposes and work slightly different ways.

Merlin Sound ID

Merlin identifies bird sounds using machine learning technology to recognize species based on spectrograms—visual representations of sounds. For Merlin to learn to recognize a species by sound, we use audio recordings from the Macaulay Library that include a variety of sounds for each species to “train” Merlin. 

eBird.org

BirdNET (What the PUC uses)

BirdNET is a research platform that aims at recognizing birds by sound at scale. [It supports] various hardware and operating systems such as Arduino microcontrollers, the Raspberry Pi, smartphones, web browsers, workstation PCs, and even cloud services.

https://birdnet.cornell.edu/
PUCMerlin App
Automatic bird ID
Detection modelBirdNETSound ID
Worldwide functionality✗ 
Realtime detection✗ 
Recording formatFLACWAV
GPS data✗ 
Spectrogram playbackweb-only
Advanced filtering✗ 
PlatformsApp, Web, APIApp
Works offline

Merlin serves as a real-time bird identification tool. Helpful to prioritize which bird to look for when it’s detecting something interesting. It’s a good study tool with the real-time spectrograms, photos, and more.

Merlin is more limited in the species it currently supports than the BirdNET model the PUC uses:

Sound ID in the Merlin Bird ID app is currently available for 1,054 species of birds. This includes comprehensive coverage in the United States, Canada, Europe, and the Western Palearctic, and coverage of more common and widespread species in the Neotropics and India.

https://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/sound-id/

Merlin’s audio clips can be saved and manually uploaded to eBird.

Merlin excels at:

  • Accurate, real-time identification of audio, photos, or descriptions
  • Being an intuitive tool anyone can understand
  • Offering photos and other reference information

BirdWeather PUC excels at:

  • Being compact, portable, and easy to use
  • Having a broader list of species compatibility: +6,000 currently
  • Collecting tons of environmental data for scientists and hobbyists
  • Giving users access to audio clips and raw detection data from the device’s SD card
  • Automatically identifying and scoring the quality of the captured recordings
  • Operating in “Live Station” mode to broadcast bird detections in real-time (Similar to BirdNET-Pi)

The PUC is a completely passive bird identification tool that is ideal for those who love data and want a device to capture ambient bird songs with no effort.


Use PUC as a realtime bird detection station

When the PUC is plugged into a power source it will operate 24/7 in “Live Station” mode. Users of the previously-reviewed Haikubox or homemade BirdNET-Pi station will be familiar with this idea. It can technically function as a live station for a limited time on battery power.


Bringing the PUC on vacation

During our 10-day exploration of Spain and Portugal, we added more than 50 species across my eBird checklists. The PUC was with me every day passively recording any birds we encountered.

A seamless 600 bird detections

Each evening my PUC spent time uploading the day’s recordings via the hotel Wi-Fi or phone hotspot. The lists of detections gave me clues on what to look for on subsequent days.

Useful for getting recordings of new birds

The PUC can assist in obtaining usable bird recordings without the need to constantly save Merlin recordings or dedicate an entire birding session to recording with a microphone.

It saved me a lot of time post-birding since the manual organizing and transferring of causal recordings is eliminated.

💡 Good things to know

  • Adjust the confidence threshold in the BirdWeather app to filter out confident detections.
  • BirdWeather PUC and other similar acoustic identification devices cannot automatically submit detection data to eBird. This is an intentional data choice from eBird.

Playing with the PUC data

Tell a fun story by plotting the detections

With the help of AI chat bots I developed a web app using to plot the PUC detections on a map. Bird detections are plotted from the timestamped GPS data with connecting lines, photo icons, and names.

birdweather puc detections plotted on a map
PUC detections plotted on a map with images and species names.

Technical details


The PUC is a compelling, unique gadget with lots to look forward to

There are no currently comparable products on the market like the BirdWeather PUC. The vision of a passive, bio-acoustic bird detection device has been achieved previously (see my Haikubox review or BirdNET-Pi build guide). But this is the first portable device I’m aware of that is designed to be taken with you.

With its current feature set it’s a compelling device. Tools and other projects can easily integrate with PUC data leaving a lot of room for creativity.

Tim Clark and his small team are highly engaged with the BirdWeather Community forum. They’ve been listening to feedback and using it to inform app, website, and PUC firmware updates.

It’s still early in the life of this new product. Admittedly, there have been occasional hiccups with the website or uploading of clips. However, the BirdWeather team has been extremely responsive whenever I’ve emailed them with questions or for troubleshooting.

💬 Consider the BirdWeather PUC if

  • you desire to learn more about the birds around you
  • you seek more bird recordings but don’t want to carry a dedicated microphone setup
  • you like gadgets and the data-aspect birdwatching
  • you want a backyard station to automatically identify any nearby birds

If you’re a new PUC owner or considering one

Check out the PUC Quick Start Guide and the BirdWeather Community Forum. It will answer a lot of common questions and provide a place to give your feedback or ideas.

Download the BirdWeather App to try out the functionality that the PUC offers (some of it at least). The mobile app can listen, ID, and broadcast bird detections in real time. The caveat is the app must be actively running and it won’t produce the supplemental environmental data.


Helpful tips

  • Reconfigure PUC’s Wi-Fi by clicking “Setup my PUC” on the settings page in the BirdWeather app.
  • Adjust the Confidence and Probability percentages in the BirdWeather app to filter the visible detections. This won’t impact how BirdWeather analyzes the clips and will only filter out less likely detections in your view
  • How to pair your PUC with multiple devices
  • Quickly get an API token by creating a BirdWeather Account, then registering the station on the Stations page
  • Explore your station’s detection data using the Data Explorer and log in to see export options

Where to buy the BirdWeather PUC?

It can be purchased for $249 on the BirdWeather website, and as of May 2024 you can get it on Amazon.

There are currently no ongoing costs or subscription to pay on top of the purchase price.

The PUC operates worldwide, and curious individuals can view the interactive map on BirdWeather to explore active PUC stations and observe their recent detections.

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: BirdWeather PUC – A data-rich continuous portable bird detector”

  1. Hi there,
    Merlin is definitely not useful worldwide. It can’t recognise the most basic, commonly heard Australia species. It fails at (Australian) magpies, kookaburras and masked lapwings, just to name a few. Great for IDing introduced, invasive Northern Hemisphere species though, like spotted doves, mallards and European Goldfinches.

    This is one of the things that led me to tryout Birdweather, which might not do them all, but can ID a lot of Aussie species I’ve tried so far.

    Reply
    • Hey! Thank you for your feedback! I agree with you. I’ve had similar experiences when traveling outside of the US. Merlin can be super hit-or-miss. I updated the review accordingly. -Jeff

      Reply

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